Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

January 2014 Newsletter Article

January 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found …”
Joy to the World ELW #267

If you have shared a cup of coffee with me here at church, you have probably noticed that my coffee cup has not been washed for some time. (In truth, I have an even half dozen of them, all in generally the same condition.) Some of you have even commented on the fact, to which I have responded that I like my coffee cups “well seasoned,” that they are now “broken in just the way I like them,” or that not washing them is a preventative measure to assure that they won’t be stolen. There is accuracy in all of these statements, but there may be other reasons as well (laziness, perhaps). To those of you have threatened to take matters into your own hands and wash them: back away slowly and no one will get hurt.

However, in the spirit of Christ’s birth and, to a far lesser extent, the New Year, this post-Christmas you will see a sparkling clean coffee cup in my hand. I am not one who makes New Year’s resolutions—although there is something epic about turning a page on a new calendar—yet, we who are Christians understand Jesus’ coming into the world as being far more significant.

As the hymn says, “No more let sin and sorrow grow.” Like the residue that builds up in my coffee cup, the sludge of our brokenness accumulates in our lives. This can happen so gradually that we sometimes we don’t notice it. Then one day, our separation from God and each other is so obvious that we can’t ignore it.

Fortunately, the God who donned human flesh over 2,000 years ago continually “comes to make his blessings flow” without limit. In fact, every day is Christmas in the life of Jesus’ followers, an opportunity to “come clean” and start fresh.

So, I’m not promising that I will keep my coffee cups clean; I just might let them get grungy to keep reminding myself of the incredible love that God pours out to all of us, all of the time. But, for now, they’ll glow to reflect the light of Christ. Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Meeting Christmas" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Meeting Christmas
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

When does it become Christmas for you? At what point do you say, “Here I am, at last?” We have been on this journey, moving toward Christmas, for quite some time. Some of us have been going longer than others. In church time, for 24 days now during Advent, we have been moving through a time of preparation, hope, and expectation. For others it has been since Thanksgiving or Black Friday and still others perhaps several months, maybe even a year ago. So I wonder: when do you know when you have arrived? When will you have you met Christmas?

Christmas is a time of movement and it is so, right from the beginning, as Mary and Joseph made the trip from Nazareth to their ancestral home of Bethlehem. Like them, as for many of us, there is a certain element of “going home” involved in the journey. We tend to sentimentalize their travel (and ours) like a greeting card moment, but it was probably arduous and long. It is even doubtful they had a donkey for Mary to ride. So, some of us may be trudging toward Christmas as they were; others of a younger mindset are running and skipping, and still others may be dragged kicking and screaming, dreading whatever Christmas has meant them or will mean to them this year.

As a pastor, it becomes Christmas late for me because I am so wrapped up in preparing and leading worship. I think it starts to become real as I light my candle and start singing Silent Night. Growing up, it became Christmas when my curmudgeonly bachelor uncle would arrive and there would be a present for him despite his protests. It became Christmas when we could open one present before dinner, and when I was able to confound my insatiably curious sister by ingeniously wrapping her present. Into adulthood, being separated from family meant that it became Christmas far away from “home,” when we formed our own home.

Of course, Mary and Joseph didn’t know they were going to meet Christmas that first one 2,000 years ago. In fact, it makes more sense to acknowledge that Christmas came to meet them rather than the other way around. The same is said for the shepherds in the fields and, quite possibly the heavenly host of angels. Christmas meets them. Isn’t this the way that God always works in our world, that God comes to meet us? Hasn’t that been the message from the very beginning and will be throughout the Jesus story? Doesn’t Christmas meet us more than we meet it?

Going home for Joseph and Mary wasn’t going to be the kind of homecoming we tend to romanticize. We tend to think of homecomings as gathering with family and friends for food and celebration. Yet, as we look deeper into the story of Jesus’ birth, God creates in them a sense of community in a totally unexpected way.  Angels and shepherds and animals and who knows what others come together as God meets them. Isn’t that also the message of the Bible from beginning to end? Isn’t that the real story line in all of the Christmas specials you see on TV, at least the good ones, that God creates community in our midst in delightful and unexpected ways?

The last candle lit on the Advent wreath signifies light and not just any light. It signifies the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Christmas comes to us wherever and whenever the Light pierces the darkness in our lives. Our lives contain pain, fear and messiness, and it also contains joy, hope and beauty. Thankfully, it’s those places God enters, light brightly shining. Are you there yet? Have you seen it? Is it Christmas for you yet? As you continue your journey, may you know that God will come and God’s light will shine, wherever you are. Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Love through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Love through the Prophet
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
John 1.1-18
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
December 22, 2013

[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us… 
From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (John 1.14, 16)

Clearly, Ole could tell that Lena was agitated, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know why. He was also pretty confident she wouldn’t keep it in and, sure enough it came: “Ole, do you love me? He wasn’t prepared for that one, thinking it might have been lid on the commode again. “What” was all he could say? “Do you love me,” she repeated? “You never say you love me.” “Lena,” Ole said, with all the emotion a Swede could muster, “I told I loved you when we first got married, and if the situation ever changes, I’ll let you know.”

Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the candle associated with love. We do so having finished our trip through the Old Testament and picking up the Jesus story in the New Testament. This year in the Narrative Lectionary, we read the Jesus story in the Gospel of John. Like the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other,” John is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is no birth narrative in John, at least not your typical one, and a brief review shows its oddity. There are no parables, unless you count the “I ams” that Jesus speaks of himself (“I am the Good Shepherd”; “I am the Bread of Life”; etc.). Rather than having short stories in a narrative sequence, John has several long stories with rich dialogue and drama.

Our view of Jesus is also different in John: he speaks so loftily, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what he is saying. Yet, if there is one thing the Fourth Gospel speaks loudly and clearly it is love. A cursory glance at a concordance shows that the Gospel that gives us arguably the most famous of verses, “For God so loved the world …,” uses the word love far more than the other three. As God spoke creation into being at the beginning of time through the pre-existent Word, so God continues to speak new life through the Word become flesh, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us.

Jesus may seem to have his head in the clouds in John’s Gospel, but he is firmly with us. God gets “down and dirty” with creation, coming down to meet us where we are by becoming a divine blend of soil and spirit, and entering the messiness and brokenness of our lives. It has been likened it to this: it is as if God asked one of us to become a dog and to go to a planet of rabid dogs where we would in all likelihood be torn to shreds, just to tell them God loved them. In the face of rejection, through Jesus God shows the lengths he will go to get through to us.

 “Do you love me?” The question asked by Lena is one we often ask of God, “Do you love me?” God responds by sending Jesus, who communicates as much through his actions as his words. Indeed, we often receive the fullness of God’s love in Jesus, “grace upon grace.” Though I’d memorized that verse long ago, it didn’t become real to me until my father-in-law’s funeral, when so many people sent good wishes and showed up to be there for our family. God poured out love through others, grace after grace.

Just a few days ago, as I was manning a Salvation Army kettle on behalf of Rotary, a man stopped, put a few dollars into the kettle, and paused to tell me about losing his 102 year old mother a week ago. He told me about the outpouring of love and support from the nursing home staff and how much his mother had blessed them. He didn’t say it this way, but he received grace upon grace in the midst of his mother’s death. Through his story, I also shared in that abundant, loving grace.

Through Jesus Christ, God’s love flows in ways that had not been possible before. “Do you love me,” we ask God? In a few minutes, we’ll encounter grace upon grace through the gift of Holy Communion, as God answers with a resounding yes, continuing to pour out his love for us. For, the Word becomes flesh each and every day in so many ways as we receive grace upon grace. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Joy through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Joy through the Prophet
Isaiah 55.1-13; John 15.11
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 15, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

 “Dad, what are you doing December 14,” my youngest daughter asks and I cautiously respond, “Why?” I’m thinking that another “Daddy-do” list is coming, but instead she said, “How would you like to go to the Science Museum with me?” “Oh, you want to see the new Mayan exhibit,” I say. “Sure, I can do that.” “You don’t seem very excited about it,” she says. Now, my daughter has known me her entire life, well over 25 years, so you’d think she’d have figured me out by now. Though I didn’t show it, I was overjoyed that she wanted to spend time doing something with me, and something enjoyable at that.

The pink candle for Third Sunday of Advent typically represents joy, which I have found is remarkably difficult to pin down. Intuitively, we’re pretty sure it’s not the same as happiness, yet we think we know it when we see it. However, when comes time to describe or define it, it’s like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. I think that the unexpected appearance of color pink in the midst of blue gives us a hint to its nature: in the midst of waiting, watching and hoping for God’s appearance in our world, something astonishing happens.

Isaiah 55 is the capstone to that whole section called Second Isaiah, which written to the Jewish Babylonian exiles. The verses burst with joy at the news: God has been working behind the scenes to send them home. The Persians have defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus, the king, is not only letting the Jews return if they so choose, he is even willing to fund the trip. This is helpful given what they’ll find when they get there, a city and temple in ruins. If they want to be happy, they will stay where they have built their lives. If they return, the joy will come from elsewhere.

This past week I asked both colleagues and parishioners to define joy. Most that I asked said that it comes from somewhere outside ourselves or wells up within us, but it is not something we can bring on. I’m also pretty sure that you can’t order someone to be joyful or shame them into it. And as I think more about how the Bible talks about joy the more counter-intuitive it seems. For example, what is perhaps the most joyous of letters, Philippians, was written by the Apostle Paul in the midst of extreme suffering.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems that joy comes from God’s presence and action in our lives. Joy comes when God’s future promises of restoration surprisingly breaks into our present situation. Peace, what we talked about last week, is the assurance that God will show up; joy is our response when that happens, often in wildly unpredictable ways. Someone has said that it’s like cheering crazily that we’ve won the war after just one of our soldiers has parachuted behind enemy lines.

This time of year is not easy for many people, especially those going through tough times. We cannot force ourselves to be joyful, but Advent encourages us to expect it will come and to wait, look, and hope for it. It may be a kind word from an unexpected source, an offer of help, the presence of friends who walk with us in the midst of grief and loss. It may come from the waters of baptism or the warmth from a little bread and wine at Holy Communion. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. You who have no money: come, buy and eat.”

I did go to the Maya exhibit with my daughter, and she did have a “Daddy-do” list, albeit a small one, but I counted both joys to be in my daughter’s life, even if I don’t always show it. And while I’m on the subject, being your pastor, walking with you on your faith journeys, and seeing God work wild and crazy things in your lives brings me exceeding joy, even if I don’t always show it. May the joy of God, which passes all understanding, keep you and bless you today and always. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Peace through the Prophet" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Peace through the Prophet
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 8, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 20.19-23

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37.14)

One of the bits of conventional “wisdom” about preaching is that you should preach what you don’t know or ought to know. The idea is that by wrestling with a topic, you’ll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of that topic. For this week, at least, that seems to be the case as I am tasked with preaching about peace. The past few weeks, and perhaps even months, have been challenging, both personally and professionally. And, as a pastor intimately involved in peoples’ lives, yours have been, too. Our lives seem to be one disruption after another interrupted by occasional outbreaks of calm rather than the other way around.

The Israelites of Ezekiel’s time can certainly relate, having experienced devastating disruptions. Their country has been defeated by the Babylonians with the temple and Jerusalem destroyed. They have been forcibly removed from their homeland and are in a foreign country. Their situation is so extreme that it can only be described in terms of lifeless, dry bones. These bones represent the ravages of war in which bodies are stripped by the victors and flesh eaten by the scavengers. And so comes the question that is both poignant and plaintive, “Can these bones live?”

The prophet Ezekiel, an exile just as the rest of them, declares that new life is indeed possible. Death, Ezekiel prophesies, is very real, but it is not final because all appearances to the contrary, God is the author of life. The same God who breathed life into creation, whose wind moved across the waters, whose spirit enlivens everything, including humanity, has not abandoned us, but continues to blow. It will be this same wind, breath, and spirit that will give life where death seems to have been the final word.

Jesus’ disciples experienced one of the most disruptive and tumultuous of times, the cruel and painful execution of their friend and teacher in the most horrific of ways, crucifixion. Hiding behind closed doors in fear and trembling, afraid of the religious authorities, they were as about as “dry” and dead as one can be, even with the amazing news from the women of an empty tomb. Yet Jesus comes among them and, just as the creator at creation, breathes new life into them. With the presence of hope that the possibility new life brings, comes the sense of peace.

The word of peace Jesus speaks is a standard greeting, but on the resurrected Jesus’ lips they are much more. As Raymond Brown says, “… Jesus’ words are not a wish, but a statement of fact.” Robert Kysar adds, “Peace is a gift from the risen Christ and signifies God’s prolonged presence with humanity.” However, Frederick Buechner reminds us, “For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.” The peace the Bible describes is that which God brings, which passes all understanding and that keeps our hearts and minds connected to Jesus Christ.

Former South African political prisoner turned president, Nelson Mandela passed away this week. He was exiled in a prison for 27 years and after winning his release, led his country into democracy. No doubt hope sustained him all those years, but he must have also had a sense of peace that he was doing what he needed to do even in the most difficult of circumstances. This was accomplished through the presence of love. Wherever your bones are dry today, whatever seems dead and lifeless to you, know that Jesus opens the graves of our lives and breathes new life into us. God has put his spirit in us in our baptisms and it continues to blow. We have the peace that only Christ can give us and through that peace we shall live. Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Hope through the Prophet" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Thus Says the Lord: God Speaks Hope through the Prophet
Daniel 3.1, 8-30
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 1, 2013

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the four weeks of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. If we were still using the Revised Common Lectionary, we’d hear about the last times and Christ’s return, remembering that the one who came 2,000 years ago promises to come again, for which we also prepare. So, the themes woven throughout the season of Advent are expectation, preparation, and waiting. We expect Christ to come to us, we prepare for that coming, and we wait for it. But, there are five complementary themes, traditionally assigned to the five Advent wreath candles. In order, they are hope, peace, joy, love and, on Christmas Eve, light.

However, we are not in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are in the Narrative Lectionary, which takes a storyline approach to the Bible. That means we are preparing for the Jesus story in a different and, I’d argue, more powerful, way. We are hearing what God speaks through the prophets, and today the prophet Daniel speaks hope. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is not in the Revised Common Lectionary, but is standard fare for Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. Like CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I wonder if the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a children’s story or an adult story. One on level, it is almost comical in its simplicity, but on another it challenges our imaginations.

Though probably written hundreds of years later, the story is set in ancient Babylon during Jewish exile. The Jews of Judah and Jerusalem have been forcibly removed from their homeland, exiled into a foreign country. It’s a devastating situation for many reasons: the Jews are cut off from their homeland and the temple where they worship God. The question becomes what the Jews are to do in this situation, especially regarding worship. Last week’s answer from Jeremiah was that they were to work for the welfare of the city in which they find themselves. As the Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis De Sales said, they are to bloom where planted. Today’s answer builds on last week’s: you are to be the right kind of flower as you bloom. In other words, you are to be a people of integrity.

When the word hope comes to mind, we normally equate it to a passive, wishful thinking. “I hope I get a good grade on the test” (when you haven’t studied). Or, “I hope I get that promotion” (when you haven’t worked for it). Or, “I hope the Vikings win today” (when they don’t seem to have the resources or will to do so). Yet, the biblical definition of hope has more muscle to it. Biblical hope is expectation and trust in God’s future action. Hope involves waiting, but it is an active waiting, not a twiddle your fingers, tapping your foot kind of waiting. The Jewish exiles hoped that they would be able to go home, but it was a hope that led them to stay busy and go about their business. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego hoped that God would deliver them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t presume upon God. Instead, their hope trusted God to act in God’s way, not theirs.

There are many places around the world where Christians are being persecuted and forcibly converted. By the way, forcible conversions don’t last. It’s like the person who marries someone who cheated on their spouse; why wouldn’t they do the same to you? Thankfully, we don’t have nearly those kinds of situations, but even so, Christianity is not as privileged as it once was (or thought it was). Furthermore, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego challenges us to ask ourselves what it means to have integrity of faith. What are those forces in our culture or society that undercut our basic commitments about who God is and who we are in relationship to God? How do these forces squelch the hope we have? As we wait for God’s future, do we trust in God, being active in service, or do we just ride along?

Two short stories: Ginny was a wrestling mom, whose son, Marcus, was good even as an eighth grader. Marcus was also in Confirmation. Ginny stood up to the wrestling coach, firmly telling him Marcus would not wrestle Wednesdays and Sundays. Bill was the pastor of a church in a denomination that forbid their pastors to join other churches and pastors in worship or prayer. Bill felt strongly that he needed to be a part of community worship services and did so openly and with the support of his congregation. Marcus’ wrestling coach backed down, but Bill paid a great personal and professional price for bucking his denomination. Both tried to be persons of integrity, signs of hopefulness and trust in God’s presence.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego does not presume that God will rescue us from every fiery situation we face. It is, however, a story about a stubborn refusal to despair in the midst of life’s pressures. Yes, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faithful to God, but the story is more about God’s faithfulness to us. This faithfulness will be most perfectly enfleshed in the advent of Jesus Christ, whose birth, life, death, and resurrection encourage us in hopeful, active service as we wait his return. May you be strengthened in your hopeful lives, both this season and always. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Location,Location, Location" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Location, Location, Location
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 24, 2013
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14

In December 1977, I was an assistant manager with Minnesota Fabrics in the Twin Cities, nearing the end of my training. Though I didn’t know it then, that next spring I’d be on my way to Chicago and part of a new program with the company. One day, I received a call from my group manager, my boss’ boss, telling me to pack my bags. I was being sent to Duluth for two weeks to run the store there while they were closing it.

The store manager had already transferred to another store and someone needed to run it until its closing. It was not a great position to be in: the employee morale was low and some were leaving for new jobs. If that wasn’t enough, the motel I was staying in had a massive gap in the door, making my room like a walk-in freezer. I didn’t know anybody in Duluth, the weather was miserable, and the work disheartening. Though it may be an exaggeration, for me it was the Minnesota Fabrics equivalent of Siberia.

The prophet Jeremiah is writing to some Jews who were feeling similarly dislocated, only in Babylon. It’s around 626 BCE, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel has been destroyed by the Assyrians, who have made the Southern Kingdom of Judah a vassal state, that is, until the Babylonians come along. That’s the way it is when you are a bully; a bigger bully usually comes along to take your place. In a moment of false bravado, the king of Judah rebels by not paying the taxes and pays the price. Governments don’t like it when you don’t pay your taxes. In what will be known as the first deportation, many of the elite of Judah have been relocated to Babylon. They are cut off from their homeland, their families, and worst of all, they think, from their God.

With the elite in Babylon, there are prophets telling the dislocated exiles to continue to rebel. They promise that their time there will be short and they must resist every effort to keep them subjugated. In response, Jeremiah sends a letter countering that message, and giving a startling message from God: they are to not only go about their business, but they are to work for the welfare of their country. Furthermore, they are going to be there a lot longer than they think, several generations, in fact. However, Jeremiah says, all evidence to the contrary, God is with them and has a hopeful future for them.

All of us experience dislocations in our lives, from mild to life-changing; some often devastating. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of an illness, leaving a long-time home, are all dislocations. What makes it worse is that we live in an uncertain economic and political time, with high unemployment or underemployment, a dysfunctional political system, and youngsters sent to fight in illogical wars. The false prophets among us are rampant: we can spend our way to prosperity; all we need are massive cuts (or massive taxes) to get out of this hole; the next shiny, new thing will make life better; and the most insidious of all, God wants us wealthy.

Jeremiah’s message is as important for us who are dislocated today as it was to those in Babylon. God is present and actively working in our midst in spite of our inability to see God’s presence. In other words, though we may feel dislocated in our lives, we are never dislocated from God. Furthermore, Jeremiah’s words are an invitation to trust God in our times of dislocation when doing so seems crazy. In so doing, our actions, our very lives, become signs of hope and trust to those around us.

The Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is credited with saying, “bloom where you are planted.” More recently, Mary Engelbreit has made the phrase popular. When I think of this phrase, I think of seeing a flower sprouting up in the midst of a patch of broken concrete. It wasn’t the lush garden or rich soil the flower dreamed of, but what an incredible sign of God’s in-breaking presence it is!

Somewhere along the line, I decided to do the best I could in Duluth, to work for its welfare and the welfare of Minnesota Fabrics. Eventually, I returned to my former post and then the promotion to the Chicago area. However, it wouldn’t be until much later that I realized how God was present in, with, and through my experiences in Duluth. This would be a lesson that I would relearn countless times throughout my life.

Wherever you are feeling dislocated or cut off from God, know that God is with you. Know that God is actively working in your life and in the life of this congregation. God invites us to join along in that work, being signs and instruments of his desire to bring our world back into a living and loving relationship with him and each other. That’s our location: to bloom where we are planted, knowing that God provides all we need. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"The Guiding Light" - Sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost

The Guiding Light
Pentecost 26 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 17, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 9.1-7; John 8.12

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9.2)

As I get older, I notice the effects of darkness or lack of light: a gloomy attitude on a gloomy day, needing more light to read by, and increased difficulty driving at night. I much prefer sunny days, regardless of temperature; I like a lot of light to read; and I need the right kind for driving. Darkness and light are important metaphors in the Bible, especially in the Gospel of John as we will see as we get into the book after Christmas. Of course, darkness refers to shortened days, but it also refers to troubled times, such as the “dark night of the soul” as St. John of the Cross described.

The prophet Isaiah, the one we call “First,” speaks during a darkening time of Assyrian oppression. There are at least three Isaiahs, prophesying during three different times and situations. And no, we are not rushing Christmas today just like the stores; this text is part of the narrative flow of the biblical story. We think this was originally an “ascension oracle,” rejoicing at the crowning of a new king, probably Hezekiah. However, the followers of Jesus of Jesus saw in this prophecy a foreshadowing of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Either way, as with the new king, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

A central theme of this passage, found throughout the biblical story, is that God is doing the acting. This beacon of hope, our guiding light, has been given to us; the light has shined on us. Furthermore, there is an “already, but not yet” quality to this light that God provides in darkness. Our darknesses may not totally disappear, but neither will the darknesses overcome the light. In fact, we can be so bold as to say that whenever the darkness appears God’s light does, too.

We cannot bring about the light; only God can do that. However, we can look for the light God promises to bring. This past Wednesday I asked where people have seen the light of hope in their darkest times. One person has seen the light through phone calls received in their most difficult times from unlikely people. Another said they always come to this place because they know God’s light will shine somewhere here. She doesn’t know if it will be in the scripture, hymn, sermon, or kind word, but she knows she’ll find it here.

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday, the culmination of “Gathering in God’s Love.” We have had two moving temple talks: Josh talking about his deeply meaningful participation in Holy Communion; and Terry about the blessings of gathering in order to give ourselves away to others through the lutefisk dinners. We remember that we don’t give because God needs our money, and it’s not even about keeping this place open. We give in response to a generous God who gives freely to us and wishes us to be generous people as well.

Yet, there is another aspect to making a commitment today, beyond supporting mission and ministry that God calls us to in this place. Though we cannot bring the light, we can be guiding lights to others. The commitments we make here today are signs of hope, beacons of light declaring that God has a future for us and the world. We who walked in darkness have seen a great light, Jesus, the Light of the World. If you are walking in darkness today, know that God’s light will find you. If not, look for a place where God wishes for the light to shine through you. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Rolling on the River" - Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Rolling on the River
Pentecost 25 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 10, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24

One day, as an undergrad at Gustavus Adolphus College, I walked into the cafeteria and went over to my friend, Dave. Totally unexpectedly, Dave snapped, “I don’t have time for you today, Scott.” I was completely caught off-guard and walked away shamed and bewildered. Later, I was able to talk with Dave and learn that I had said something in jest but was hurtful to Dave. I apologized and we continue as friends today. However, that day I had abused our relationship. I had taken our friendship for granted and, as painful as it was, Dave was right to tell me about it.

In our reading today, we hear the words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Yet, as powerful as they are, we must not ignore the context in which they are spoken. Like me and my relationship with Dave, the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are taking their relationship with God for granted, abusing it with actions that are contrary to their words.

Life is very good in Israel. Their leadership is strong and they have rest from their enemies all around them. People are prosperous, being able to afford luxurious country houses as well as city houses. Business is booming at the temple, people are generous with their donations, and the house is packed. Yet, right outside the temple, the smaller farmers are being charged exorbitant land rents and receive less of the crop than they should. Furthermore, when they seek justice in the courts, they can’t afford to buy justice like the wealthy landowners can. Furthermore, the most vulnerable, the widows and orphans who are especially close to God’s heart, are being neglected.

Unlike last week’s prophet, Elijah, who is burned-out and struggling to hear God’s still, small voice, Amos is on fire, doing more forth-telling than foretelling, relating God’s hair-parting roar to the people. Intolerant of complacency, he raises warning flags, reminding the Israelites that God has a claim on our behavior and that going through the religious motions is not acceptable to God. This is one God who is not neutral on matters of good and evil, and not afraid to say so.

Through the image of moving water, Amos wants us to know that justice is dynamic and moving. As it says in Micah 6.8, we are to do justice as well as to love kindness as we walk humbly with God. Justice is a surging, churning, cleansing stream. Also, Amos reminds us that justice is responsive: because God loves us, we respond in just acts toward others. Moreover, it is not simply enough for us to do loving acts, we are to become advocates for the powerless, giving voice against the systems of injustice for those who have no voice.

As I worked with the text this week, I was sure that using it to browbeat you wouldn’t be very helpful. Think about what we do for the less-advantaged through places such as ECHO Foodshelf, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, Crossroads, Pathstone, Lutheran Social Services, Jesus Food, Teresa House, Global Eye Mission, Edith White, and others. These don’t even include what we do through the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When it comes to justice, we roll on this river. Yet, what keeps me awake at nights isn’t wondering if we are doing enough, it’s wondering if we are doing too much or if we are even doing the right things.

Newly-elected Bishop Steve Delzer just announced that our synod is going to focus on eliminating food insecurity in the next five years, inviting congregations to partner and collaborate to do so. I wonder about our role in this as we are doing a lot already.  I think that we need to look at the systemic causes of the injustices and work to eliminate them, not just feed people. These are huge tasks, and we certainly can’t do it all, but can we step back and discover God’s leading? I don’t have the answers, but Amos prompts us to ask the questions, to seek God’s call on us.

One last thing: although we are left struggling with how to faithfully answer God’s call, we are also left with a good and encouraging word: Amos doesn’t just speak justice, he speaks hope. Like my relationship with Dave, relationships can be repaired and life is to be found in serving good. What we need to remember that it isn’t us; it is God’s abundant and life-giving water flowing in, with, and through us that is key. As we have this conversation about God’s call on us, we do so drinking from the fount of blessing, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"On the Strength of that Food" - Sermon for All Saints

On the Strength of that Food
All Saints – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 3, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 19.1-18; John 12.27-28

Elijah is deep in the wilderness, fleeing for his life from the rage of Queen Jezebel. He is alone and full of despair. It isn’t an easy gig being a prophet of the Lord in the Northern Kingdom with its corrupt rulers, such as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They are not only corrupt, but have forsaken the Lord for the Phoenician god Baal. Interestingly, Elijah is fresh off of what would make the highlight reel of any prophet’s career, the killing of Baal’s prophets after Elijah has called down fire from heaven. Now, with a price on his head, Elijah gets as far away as he can and then still farther into the wilderness.

When the word wilderness pops up our ears should perk up because it is both an important place and an important metaphor in the Bible. There are too many stories to rehearse here, but it is a place the Israelites wandered for 40 years until they could enter the Promised Land and it is where Jesus is tempted by Satan 40 days and nights. The wilderness is a dangerous and scary place, with wild animals and bleak landscape. A place of fear and danger in its own right, it also becomes major metaphor for the life of faith.

As I think about this image as it relates to our lives, it seems there are two types of wildernesses. The first type is the wilderness into which we are thrust, not of our own choosing or making. The loss of a job, the illness or death of a loved one, a divorce we didn’t seek or want; all these are wildernesses. The second type of wilderness is the one we retreat to or create for ourselves, escaping the stresses and strains of life. These are the wildernesses of TV, the internet, drugs, alcohol, sleeping, eating, working out, or running away. In both cases, we wind up in places that we never imagined we’d find ourselves, feeling alone and abandoned.

It’s ironic that within the last few days as I’ve been working on this text that I’ve received links on Facebook to two disturbing articles. The first was from a former parishioner and it was about the epidemic of clergy burnout being felt across all denominations and faith groups. The second was a story about how clergy have the 8th highest number of psychopaths in their profession. (By the way, CEO and Lawyers are numbers one and two.) Perhaps retreating into the wilderness of Facebook is not as good idea as I think. The reality is that all of us have those times when we despair and want to give up because of our circumstances. We all have those times when we retreat into unhealthy places or activities.

The good news today is that, in those times and places we never dreamed of finding ourselves, like Elijah we are not as alone as we think we are, for God meets us in the midst of our wilderness. And as with Elijah, God shows up in the places we least expect providing what we need. There have been countless times I have been in a wilderness spot and a kind word of encouragement has allowed me to go “on the strength of that food” for many days and nights.

Today we celebrate All Saints, a time to remember those who have gone before us. We tend to think of a saint as someone is good, someone who is dead, or someone good and dead, like St. Paul or St. Mary. But in today’s context, we can say that saints are people like you and me who are met by God in moments of despair and emptiness, who don’t always feel God’s presence and may even struggle with it. Saints are people like you and me who cling to the promise that God meets us in our sufferings, but also promises not to leave us there, because God has given everyone of us a purpose.

We believe that God will not only deliver us from our wildernesses, but also for something else. Each of us has a next. As we read the list of names, light candles for those we miss, and are surrounded by them as we receive Communion, we go on the strength of that food, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Where is the wilderness you find yourself in today, either of your choosing or not? Know that God is with you there, but will not leave you there, for God has a future for you. May you go on the strength of that food, sustained by the very presence of God. Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"In This Place" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

In This Place
Reformation – Narrative Lectionary Year 4
October 27, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 5.1-5, 8.1-13; John 2.19-21

Whenever I fly, which isn’t very often, I love sitting by the window and looking out. In addition to enjoying the scenery, I try to identify landmarks to determine where we are. Flying back from Washington State, wondering if I’d fly over Taft Park, the flight path that went agonizingly close to my home where I grew up in east Richfield. Indeed, that’s where we were coming in, but it was a melancholy experience. Instead of my home, there was a parking lot of a Home Depot. Most of the houses, including ours, had been razed or moved because of the airport and became commercial property.

I have come to appreciate the importance of places: Rice Lake, WI, where my mother grew up; and Ft. Snelling, where a maker stands in memory of my parents. On my bucket list is 3301 Texas Ave., St. Louis Park where I spent the first five years of my life and I haven’t been back to since. Of course, it’s not just the places that are important, but the experiences we have had and people we have met. They are so important that when they aren’t there we feel diminished and disconnected in some way.

The heart of today’s focus scripture is a place, perhaps the most important one in the Bible. Solomon, David’s son, is given permission to do what was denied his father: build a temple. The reason is that David was a man of war and the temple would not be a symbol of triumphalism. Temples and palaces were routinely built by newly crowned kings as monuments to themselves. The building projects were political moves, meant to consolidate their power. However, this temple would be built on God’s terms and for God’s purposes, not for any monarch’s political gain, even David’s.

This temple would also be different because it would be one of encounter rather than containment. The writer of 1 Kings clearly states that, although God’s glory fills the temple, God is not limited to the temple. After all, God is Lord of heaven and earth. Prior to this building of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant, symbol of God’s presence, has been in a tent. Though God refuses to be pinned down, God’s presence in the temple assures them that they now have the place that God had promised to their ancestors long ago. They won’t be abandoned. Even so, they will forget this lesson 300 years later when the temple is destroyed and they are exiled into Babylon.

In fact, the temple will be rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah, and subsequently destroyed a second time, and then a third during and after Jesus’ presence. So, Jesus startles the people when he claims he is now the temple, the locus of God’s divine presence. Jesus is now that place where we not only meet God, but God takes the initiative to meet us. This is a temple that when it is destroyed will be raised up on the third day and live forever. I in Jesus we see most clearly that God can be anywhere God chooses to be, but God promises to be in certain places for us to meet him. In “Solomon’s” Temple, the word in the form of the stone tablets, the Law is at the center; in Jesus, the Word is the center.

Five hundred years ago, a building project was the precipitating nit that Martin Luther picked with the church of the time. Though Luther didn’t object to the church being built, he did object to financing it through indulgences, “get into heaven cards” sold to unsuspecting peasants. He claimed that the church had no right to sell what God had freely given, God’s love in Jesus Christ. By the way, lest we Protestants get too snotty, we should remember that we have skeletons in our own ecclesial closets.

This past Wednesday night I asked folk, “Why are you here?” Answers were varied. “I was welcomed here and people remembered me when I came back.” “I felt acceptance for who I am.” “Our family has a long history here.” They all add up to one thing: to have an experience of the living God who, though can be anywhere, promises to be here. God meets us in the waters of baptism, making us his children. God is in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion, offering forgiveness and life. God meets us spoken words of grace and mercy. This sense of place is so critical in the time of “spiritual, but not religious”; God knows we need places like this to have an encounter with him.

Our leadership, in conversation with you all, have determined that we need to consider a building renovation project of our own next year, not as a monument to God but as a place of encounter. God willing, it will be to further support the mission and ministry God calls us to do here. It will continue to be a place for people to experience the graciously given love and acceptance of God. It will be a place where people can come and grow in the life of faith and be sent into the world, a hurting world that needs to hear the good news of God’s love. It will be a place where we can encounter the Word made flesh, whose death gives us life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Heart of the Matter" - Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

The Heart of the Matter
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 20, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 51.10-14

Our trip through the Old Testament story presents us with another call story in a long line of call stories. In fact, one way to read the Bible is to see it as ways that God invites us into his unfolding vision to love and bless the world. Last week it was Samuel, who is now grown up and has the responsibility for anointing a new king. Saul, the first and current king, has messed up royally, rejecting God’s commands and acting on his own, so much so that we are told that God repents making him king, much to Samuel’s chagrin. A new king is needed, one who is after God’s own heart, though we aren’t told directly what that means.

We are told that this new king will not be chosen by his appearance, which was apparently a common practice in Samuel’s day. When Saul was chosen we learn that “there was not a man … more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” Did you know that in virtually all of the modern presidential elections the taller candidate has won? It seems that not much has changed in 3,000 years.

Appearances don’t only count when it comes to celebrities or politics. Billions are spent on market studies and focus groups to determine what people like or don’t like. Brand names are on everything, right down to the water we drink. And in an odd twist, blue jeans with holes in the right places are more valued and expensive. As country western singer Dolly Parton said in an interview on 20/20: “It costs a lot of money to make a person look this cheap.”

So, it’s a breath of fresh air to those of us who aren’t so tall or good-looking that God is going to use a different standard when it comes to the new king because God sees differently than we do. Furthermore, we are reminded that God continually picks the least likely person for his purposes. (Even so, after David is brought in the narrator can’t help but gush about his good looks. When I meet with couples for pre-marriage counseling I ask what attracted them to each other and what do they appreciate about each other, they always list admirable qualities such as a sense of humor and being able to talk openly. Then, almost as an after-thought they add “hotness.”)

So, our first reaction is a fist-pump that God looks on our hearts, but that quickly gives way to a second: NO! I’m pretty sure I don’t want God looking into my heart, because I know what’s in there. Sure, there’s a fair amount of love for my family, gratitude for the blessings I have, compassion for those who are less fortunate, joy in the work I am called to do, and hope for the future. But I also know there’s far too much bitterness for past hurts, jealousy of others more talented or fortunate, dissatisfaction for what I don’t have, sorrow for how much I fall short, and despair over the direction our country and world is headed.

Well, if the Bible is anything, it is brutally honest about the human condition. Even David, someone after God’s own heart, acknowledges such with one of the most poignant Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 51. David, who lusted after another man’s wife, impregnated her and arranged for his death, is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin. David then asks God to create in him a clean heart and renewing a right spirit, praying that God will not break off their relationship. So, how is it that David would be the standard that neither he nor others could live up to? The Bible never tells us directly what it means to be someone after God’s own heart; we have to infer that from the surrounding story and make some educated guesses.

I don’t know for sure, but I want to propose some possibilities and let you try them on. First, I think that David was different from Saul in that he was open to God’s will for his life. Saul defied God in some important matters, effectively saying that he knew better than God did how to handle things. Second, David trusts God for what he needs, unlike Saul who takes matters into his own hands. Third, unlike Saul, who thinks he knows best, David seeks God’s counsel in what to do. Having a Godly heart may mean being open to God, trusting God, and asking for God’s guidance.

So, our story today doesn’t order us to check our hearts to see if they are godly so much as it invites us into a deeper relationship with God, where we humbly open ourselves to God by seeking God’s vision for us. This call on our lives doesn’t demand perfection, but rather calls us to discover who God has made us a person and live more fully into that kind of person God calls us to be. When we fall short or mess it up, as we most surely will, the true King, God in the flesh, will call us to himself, embrace us with love and forgiveness, and send strengthen us to go at it again. That really is the heart of the matter isn’t it, a God who says to each of us, “You are the one. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"Test and See" - Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Test and See
Exodus 16.1-18 Manna
Pentecost 20
October 6, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

We make another narrative leap today, though not as large as last week’s story about Moses’ commission to lead the Israelites. Moses has indeed succeeded in securing the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian slavery via the 10 plagues. They have crossed the miraculously parted Red Sea and are now six weeks into their journey to the Promised Land. The bloom is off the rose of freedom and the realities of the journey ahead set in. So, now come the questions, questions about God and God’s provision for them, and about Moses’ leadership. In a story that is also our story, the Israelites make a startling discovery while experience a testing of sorts.

Fresh out of college and with no grad school prospects, I entered a management training program with Minnesota Fabrics, a retail fabric chain. The company had an extensive and intensive program where we learned everything from the ground up. The store manager would quiz us on a unit then the group manager would come in and check us off and approve us for moving on to the next level. In my first such unit and test I failed miserably. I learned later that I was almost fired, but at the urging of the store manager was given a second chance. I now knew what I didn’t know and set about learning it. That experience was a kick in the pants for me, a different sort of test, the kind that determines what you are made of and how you will respond to life.

As the Israelites looked back and preserved this memory of their time in the wilderness, they understood that God was working in, with, and through them in a way they hadn’t seen before. They were afraid, so much so that their awful Egyptian slavery looked better than the uncertainty of the journey ahead. What was hard for them to see at the time was that God was preparing them for life in the Promised Land. They needed to learn to trust God for everything and God helped them learn that through the gift of manna. As Beth Tanner notes, “Their bodies may be free from slavery, but it will take much more to free their minds and hearts.” Like my experience at Minnesota Fabrics, God was working in, with, and through them to bring them to a new place.

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College, “The Universe at Its Limits.” There were many wonder-filled moments, but one highlights an aspect of today’s story. Dr. Samuel Ting, Nobel Laureate and professor of physics at MIT, shared his latest work to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station (ISS). The AMS is collecting data that aims to identify the origin of dark matter in the universe. That story is incredible in and of itself. However, what struck me was that Dr. Ting noted that, like several others projects before his, they might end up finding something far more important than what they are looking for.

The same is true for the Israelites; as they looked for their next meal, some were looking for bread and others were even looking backward, albeit romantically, to what they had in Egypt. What they discovered as God helped them see was manna. Many biblical scholars think manna is a naturally occurring phenomenon. There are scale insects that suck the sap of the tamarisk bush and excrete globules that crystallize in the sun and fall to the ground. These globules are rich in carbohydrates and sugar and can sustain a hungry traveler. The Israelites saw bug poop in a whole new way, one that supported life and developed trust in God. Almost 1300 years later, eyes will be opened to an itinerant Jewish rabbi who will die on a cross and rise three days later, the Bread of Life from heaven.

About 18 months ago, the church council in retreat adopted this story as our story for our journey of faith. One reason is that we wanted to recognize that we do food well here at Grace and the story is about food. But the main reason is that we see ourselves as on a journey from one place to another and it’s a bit scary. We wanted to acknowledge that some of the “good old days” weren’t as good as we remember. Most importantly, we wanted to remind ourselves that God is the one guiding and providing along the way.

We know that God will be with us even though we may not always see it. We know that what we discover along the way will probably be far more important than what we are looking for. Last of all, we know that God is working in, with, and through us to free our hearts and minds to love God and what God loves. We know this because of Jesus Christ, the Living Bread from heaven, who gives us abundant life. I look forward to discover with you what God will be showing us. Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"It's Not about You..." - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday

It’s Not about You…
Confirmation Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 29, 2013
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.10-15; 4.10-17
Grace, Mankato, MN

It will be no surprise that our Confirmands are very bright young people. Now, we don’t do public examinations anymore, but if we did I know they would pass with flying colors. For example, Confirmands: Was the Bible written by God or by humans? [Yes!] Here is another: Was Jesus fully God or was he fully human? [Yes!] One more: In Holy Communion, are the elements bread and wine or body and blood? [Yes!] Do you see what I mean; aren’t they brilliant? I mention this today because our texts pose some provocative questions and there’s one I’ve been chewing on all week: Who needs the other more, God or Moses?

Our journey through the story of the Old Testament this fall has taken a giant leap forward. Jacob, the stealer of the blessing from his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, has married and sired 12 sons, 10 of whom conspire to sell one of them, Joseph, into slavery into Egypt. With God’s help, Joseph rises in prominence and helps save Egypt from a devastating famine. The famine forces Joseph’s family to Egypt where he is ultimately reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father. The whole clan moves to Egypt where they flourish as a people, that is until a king who does not remember Joseph fears the Israelites and makes them slaves. Enter Moses, who is saved from infanticide by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised in her household, but flees because he has been seen killing an Egyptian and now makes his livelihood tending sheep. Whew!

Our story for today tells us that God sees the plight of his people and remembers the covenant he made with their ancestors. This doesn’t mean God has forgotten his chosen people or the promises, but that God is now going to act. God appears to Moses in the burning-but-not-consumed-bush calling him to active duty. What follows is one of the most interesting exchanges in the Bible. Interestingly, most commentators put down Moses, describing his response to God from “reluctant” to “conniving.” However, I don’t think Moses is acting unreasonable; he is simply asking good questions. You see, nowhere in the story does it indicate Moses has had any contact with the God of his ancestors, I think he has every right to ask who it is that is calling him to do some pretty outrageous things. In fact, I think that the life of faith is lived more in the questions than it is in the answers.

I also think that some of the most stimulating questions are the ones that can be answered, “Yes!” So, who needs each other more, God or Moses? Yes! Certainly, Moses needs all the help he can get to do what he needs to do, but clearly God needs Moses because for some reason, God has chosen to work through human agents. Moses has a pretty good life going. He’s married, has a family, and a steady job. Why would he want to leave that? And what about this God that is calling him to this crazy venture? When God tells Moses that his name is “I am who I am,” is he revealing who he is or not? Yes! God tells us he is a God of relationships, living and active, close at hand yet incredibly mysterious and beyond knowing. Then there is this one last question: is this story about Moses or is it about God? Yes! The Bible makes clear there is never a story about God when it’s not about us, and there’s never one about us that it’s not about God.

This is where I tell you Confirmands that today isn’t about you … and yet it is. Today is about a God who called you and set you apart in your baptisms, about parents, family, and congregation members who have journeyed with you along the way. And yet, it is about you because God needs you as much as you need God, and it is not only good but necessary that you ask questions of this God, because that’s how faith grows. Remember as you are called by God to serve others: God does not call the gifted; God gifts the called. Who are you? You are the ones loved by the God who was, who is, and will always be with you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"In This Place" - Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

In This Place
Pentecost 18 (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 22, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 27.1-4, 15-23; 28.10-17; John 1.50-51

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! (Genesis 28.16)

A long time ago and far, far away, I received a phone call from a funeral director asking if I’d be willing to do a service for a non-member. The deceased had a Lutheran affinity but was not affiliated with any congregation and the family wanted to honor him with a “Lutheran funeral.” The funeral director went on to say, however, that the family also requested a minister “who wouldn’t preach at them.” That’s why he thought of me. After giving him a hard time, I said that I think I understood what he meant; they wanted to hear Gospel, not Law, and I accepted the offer to preside at the service. On my way to visit the family, I wondered how to handle discussion of the funeral service. How was I to talk about God with folk that didn’t want to be preached at? How was I to bring God to them? To my surprise, I discovered upon my arrival that they had been talking about God before I got there. God was already in that place.

 “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it,” Jacob says after his dream about God. Much has happened since last week when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Isaac has grown up, gotten married to Rebekah, and had fraternal twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is born first and therefore has the privilege of inheritance, much like Will and Kate’s son, George. Foreshadowing a twist in the story, when Esau is born, Jacob follows holding Esau’s heel. Jacob is appropriately named: it means “heel” or “supplanter.” Prior to our readings today, Jacob catches Esau in a week moment and buys his birthright for a bowl of stew.

But there’s still the matter of the blessing, which Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal from Esau. Having tricked Isaac and Esau both, Rebekah tells Jacob that it’s a good time to find a wife, and not from the pagans they live among. So, Jacob flees and exhausted, stops for the night in the desert and lays down to rest, hoping for some relief. God comes to Jacob in a dream and gives him some unexpected news: the Lord is Jacob’s God just as he was of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. He learns that the blessing of a promised land and descendants to fill it is given to him as well, and that through him all nations will be blessed. Jacob wakes and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Jacob was talking about the place called Haran, but he could as easily been talking about his life. Jacob was scared and fearful for his life, understanding full well that his predicament was of his own making. He had no reason to believe that God was going to show up and do some incredible things in his life. Yet God, as we will learn, continually does just this, coming in the midst of our daily struggles. As Isaiah 43 proclaims,
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you O Jacob, who formed you O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. The rivers shall not over whelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel your Savior. ”
Jesus, upon whom the angels ascend and descend, becomes the promise enfleshed: “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.” We cannot explain God’s presence in the dark place of our lives, we can only look for it and proclaim it.

Today is Campus Ministry Sunday, a time to intentionally lift up our connection to campus ministry in general and Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry in particular. The issue isn’t so much, “Is God in that place we call MSU-Mankato?” We know God is there. The issue is, are we going to have a place to help students know that God is with them? We have had a long history saying, “Yes, we will help these students know God’s love and grace in this place,” and I trust we will continue to do so. Surely God is in this place, long before we recognize his presence. Let us look for it and proclaim it, remembering that God comes, blessing us to be a blessing. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Risky Business" - Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Risky Business
Pentecost 17 (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 15, 2013
Genesis 21.1-3; 22.1-14; John 1.29

I wonder how Jay and Stephanie, who had Lincoln baptized a few minutes ago, think about this story. Would they be willing to offer him up to God? Today’s text from Genesis is one of the hardest in the Bible to understand. It’s right up there with the story of Job and Jesus’ crucifixion. There have been two questions that have run through my mind all week: “What kind of a God would ask a man to sacrifice his only, beloved son?” “What kind a person would follow such a God?” The fact that this story and the others mentioned “turn out all right in the end” lulls us into a false sense of security. One way to slow ourselves down so we can grapple with the story is an old one: to ask questions. In the ancient Jewish tradition, this is called midrash, which also refers to a body of commentary that not only poses questions of the text but proposes answers as well.

Before we do, it would be helpful to recap some of the story since last week’s creation narrative. Humans have indeed become fruitful and multiplied, but they have also tried to play God instead of play human. Adam and Eve have disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. The first homicide, indeed fratricide, has occurred as Cain kills Abel. In fact, it became so bad that God does a reboot of the system with an earth-wide flood. Apparently this doesn’t work so well because soon after people tried to build a tower to heaven to live with God. As a result, God decides to form a special people through whom all families of the earth would be blessed. Curiously, he chooses, of all people, an elderly couple long past the child-bearing stage, Abraham and Sarah.

Sarah is 90 and Abraham 100 when Isaac is born, 10 long years after God’s initial call and promise to give them descendants. (Imagine, Jay and Stephanie, having a baby at that age.) Now, after seeing some concrete results of the promise, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. What kind of God would ask such a thing, and what kind of person would follow that kind of God? There are many more questions. For example, why doesn’t Abraham stand up to God as he has before? Where is Sarah while all of this is going on and what would the story look like from her perspective? What about Isaac? Can you imagine the conversation when he and Abraham return from Mt. Moriah? How would Isaac tell the story?

I think the key to teasing out some meaning for us is to think of this story as a parable. That doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t true but to think of it as not a problem to be solved but as a story to open us up to God. It is helpful to remember that the Bible in general, and this story in particular, is all about relationships, and relationships as we know are risky business. These are flesh and blood people who are trying to be in a faithful relationship with God and each other, a relationship that deepens and broadens as time goes on, and one that is not always perfect. To have a relationship with someone, including God, is to risk ourselves, to open ourselves up. It is helpful to remember that we aren’t the only ones taking risks; God has taken risks, too. By making humankind in his image, to exercise freedom over our lives, God risks having us turn our backs on him and walking away.

Relationships develop over time and they don’t always go the way we want them to, but we trust anyways, don’t we? As I think about this, and what it might have been like from Isaac’s point of view, I remember when our daughter Angela was very young. She fell, hitting her head on a sharp corner of the coffee table and sliced her head open, just above her eyebrow. I took her the doctor, who told me to wrap her in a sheet and lay her on the examination table, so she couldn’t thrash around. Then he used what must have looked like a huge needle to anesthetize her wound and proceeded to sew up her head with an even larger needle. All the while I held her and told her she needed to trust the doctor. Why did she do it? She somehow knew that I had the ability to do something for her even though she had no idea what that something might be.

Perhaps Abraham knew that the same God who was able to bring life out of two lifeless bodies could bring life out of death, even though he had no idea he that could possibly happen. In Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we experience if not the culmination of this promise then a huge step towards it: crucifixion becomes resurrection.

What kind of God would ask a person to do such a thing? The kind of God who is willing to go all in for the sake of a loving relationship with everyone, giving up his Son, his only Son, his beloved Son. What kind of people would take a risk and follow such a God? People such as you and me, who in the midst of our cancers and divorces and addictions and tragedies of our lives trust that it is this God, crucified and risen from the dead, who can and will provide for us, even when we don’t know how. Having a relationship is risky business, I know, but as Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"In the Image of God" Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Image of God
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 4: Creation
September 8, 2013
Genesis 1.1-2.4a; John 1.1-5

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.”

When I meet with couples who are preparing for marriage, we study four biblical texts that talk about marriage and relationships. One is the tricky passage in Ephesians 5 about wives being subject to their husbands and a second even trickier one is from Mark 10 on divorce. A third is from the second creation story from Genesis 2 about God creating men and women as partners. (Did you know there are two creation stories?) The fourth is from the first creation story, part of our focus text for today. One of the questions I ask the couples is, “What do you think it means to be made in the image of God?” Of course, many answers have been given over the years, most of them rightly and understandably talking about love. One perceptive young woman mentioned forgiving.

Today we begin a fresh year of the narrative lectionary, our trip through the story-line of the Bible. This fall we’ll move from the creation story in Genesis to the unfolding of God’s interaction with humanity through the major stories in the Old Testament, ending with the Prophets during Advent. These lead up to the Jesus story at Christmas, this time from the Gospel of John. We’ll stay with John through the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter and then move through the stories of the early church in Acts and Paul’s letters. Along the way, we’ll see again how God works to keep in relationship with humanity, no matter what humanity does.

Right off the bat, we hear a startling claim: humankind is made in the image of God the Creator. Ironically, the God who will not tolerate the making of permanent graven images creates us in his image. With the couples in counseling, I reflect on one aspect that has always stuck out to me, our ability to use language. The creator who speaks everything into existence gives us the unique ability to speak back. I am also struck by the fact that the God who rested on the seventh day bids us to do the same. I’ve long been concerned that the original reason for Sabbath, rest and re-creation, has been lost to us in midst of our way too busy lives.

However, I’ve other thoughts in light of today’s recognition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 25th Anniversary, “Always being made new,” and our celebration of such with the produce from our community garden. God calls us to create. Phil Hefner, who taught at our Chicago seminary, puts it this way: we are “created co-creators.” Gary Simpson, who teaches at Luther Seminary, prefers to say it a little differently: we are “co-creating creatures.” Ted Peters, who has done work in the area of the ethics of science, particularly genetics, and religion, says we are not “playing God” when we are engaged in scientific endeavors; we are “playing human” as God created us. God has called us to a unique role in the world, a position of authority and responsibility. God’s creative power doesn’t end on the seventh day; God continues to be involved in the world. Creation is heading somewhere and we aren’t just along for the ride. God works in, with, and through us, creator and created co-creators.

Even as ours is dull and tarnished, it is in Jesus that we see the intended image of God most clearly. The Word who was with God and was God, who was at the beginning and through whom all things came to being, freely and willingly emptied himself, taking on human flesh to be with us. As God gave and continues to give of God’s self in creation, Jesus does the same for us. To be made in God’s image means to give one’s self away for the sake of others. It means to participate with God’s mission to love and bless the world, to be made new.

I appreciate many things about our community garden: the number of people who have been energized and involved; the community members who are interested and participating; and certainly the amount of produce that is benefiting so many who have so little. But what I really appreciate is that you all have said that we are going to give ourselves away for the sake of others, not ourselves, to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us. Where is it that God is inviting you to create alongside God, to give yourself away for the sake of others? Made in the image of God, we are always being made new for the sake of God’s creation. That’s very good. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"The Wisdom of Solomon and Jesus" - Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

The Wisdom of Solomon and Jesus
Proverbs 10.1-12; Luke 6.37-38
Pentecost 12 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
August 11, 2013

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life. Proverbs 10.11

Our unofficial family motto growing up was, “You only tease the ones you love.” Boy was I loved! This skill came in handy with my friends Doug, Greg, and Mark where it was raised to an art form, though we called it slamming and cutting. Good-natured teasing can be fun, but unfortunately, it can also be thinly disguised anger. Even with the best of intentions, teasing can harm our relationships, making fun at another’s expense. Early in our relationship, Cindy and I were cautioned by my good friend, Jim, about this. He pointed out how our teasing could be harmful to our relationship, especially in public. I wish I could say it was the last time someone admonished me – it’s been a life-long battle for me to watch my tongue.

The move into chapter 10 of Proverbs shifts the style of the book from wisdom poems to proverbs. Many of the themes that we have encountered in our survey of the Wisdom literature, prominent in chapters 1-9 are also found here, but in a different form. This section uses antithetical parallelism (paired opposites) to illustrate the wisdom contained. It’s helpful to remember that although proverbs contain truth, they are not always or in every circumstance true. We know that good people do go hungry, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and evil is often rewarded. Yet, it’s important to heed them because the proverbs give as a window into God’s values.

They are also important because they remind us that what we think, say, and do matters. In fact, as Greg Nelson reminds us, there are only five things we have any control over: what we do and don’t do, what we say and don’t say, and what we continue to think about something. Many of us take this for granted, but a moment’s reflection shows that taking responsibility for oneself is in short supply. Dennis Challeen is a retired Winona district court judge who writes about our judicial system. In a Winona Daily News column, he cites a case where he told a young man who had appeared before him that he needed to take responsibility for his life. The young man had no idea what Challeen meant.

Taking responsibility for what we say and don’t say, or even how we say it, is also in short supply. I am reminded of that proverbial saying, variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." In a time of instantaneous communication, civil speech seems to be the exception rather than norm. From Facebook to Twitter to various blogs, people dash off what passes for their thoughts, much of it ill-conceived if not breaking the 8th Commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor.

Indeed, we can do great damage with our tongues, and their logical extensions, posts and tweets. However, we can also do great service with our tongues as well, and our society needs it desperately. Amy Lazarus tells of an experience in a Sojourners blog, “A Jew and a Mormon Find Common Ground Midair,” in which she describes a difficult but important conversation she had with a fellow traveler. Their views on virtually every topic were about as opposite as you can find, yet they were able to listen and learn while speaking respectfully to each other. These are the kind of conversations our society needs and I think we as the church are well-suited to foster them.

It is said that ethics involves knowing that adultery is wrong and morals involves not cheating on your spouse. For us, there is a third component, the ethic of love. So, ethics involves knowing that lying is wrong and morals involves, in my challenging case, not using teasing in a harmful manner. But an ethic of love shown by Jesus goes further: we are to speak well of others and to others regardless who they are. In the final analysis, it is God’s mercy that is the measure we use in our relationships with others. Rather and judge and condemn, we are to be giving and forgiving, just as God has done for us.

I’m acutely aware that this sermon more than others that screams, “Physician, heal thyself!” My mouth continues to get me in trouble, and I do my best to anticipate circumstances where that might happen. When I remember, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I pray before I enter meetings and conversations, asking God to help me. I try to remember that not everything I think has to be spoken, that others just might have more to contribute to the conversation than I do, and to be gracious in how I say what does need to be said. However, this isn’t about me. It is about a God who, when I do stumble—which is far more often than I like to admit—picks me up, dusts me off, forgives me, and gives me a chance to grow in daily wisdom, being what I was created to be. That same God is working in your life, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: Wisdom at Creation" - Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: Wisdom at Creation
Pentecost 11 (Narrative Lectionary 3 - Summer)
Proverbs 8.22-36; Luke 8.22-25
Grace Lutheran, Mankato, MN
August 4, 2013

When doing my doctoral work, most of it was online, but we’d gather for a week two times a year on the campus of Luther Seminary. Part of our schedule was doing daily devotions. One classmate, Michael, did terrific devotion on the wonders of creation using pictures and music in a PowerPoint presentation. It was beautiful, breath-taking, and stirring, extolling God’s handiwork in our world. Afterward, one of our professors wondered why Michael hadn’t included the dark side of creation. Missing were animals devouring each other, hurricanes, tornados, etc. Think of Wild Kingdom meets The Weather Channel. The professor was chided by his co-teacher, but I think his point was valid. What about the dark side of creation?

Today’s passage presents us with a Michael version of creation and the role of Wisdom in it. This is our third of six excursions into the Wisdom Literature and it presents a third major theme. The first week we learned that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord doesn’t mean quaking in our shoes, and it’s not just awe at God’s power and obedience to God’s word, but rather to be in a right relationship with God. Last week the theme was how the reader of Proverbs is to come to the book as a child learns wisdom from parents. Today, we encounter Woman Wisdom, a feminine figure as the personification of God’s wisdom.

We could do a whole Bible study on Woman Wisdom alone and her counterparts Woman Stranger and Woman Folly. Frankly, no one knows exactly what to make of her presence here. She seems to have many of the attributes of God, so is she a feminine counterpart, meant to soften God’s warrior king image? Is she Israel’s answer to the feminine gods of other national religions that surrounded them? Is she merely a literary device meant to engage the presumably young male reader? How about Jesus’ precursor as the Incarnate Logos, who “was with God and was God” at the beginning of creation? Though these are interesting discussion points, I want to spend the rest of the time looking at the text itself.

There are two main points in the text, but I want to put them in conversation with Michael’s devotion, the gospel story of Jesus’ calming of the storm, and the disciples in its midst. The first point is that God’s wisdom is present in creation, and that we can see it clearly. There is orderliness about creation that makes sense, or will make sense, as we uncover it. We rely on this order and predictability in our everyday lives. The second point is that God delights in what has been created, an assertion that goes back to and even further than the book of Genesis. Not only did God declare creation good, God and delights in us and even delights in our delight of creation. I still remember my internship supervisor, Rev. Dr. E. Gordon Ross, talking about his desire to see as much of God’s creation as he could in the remaining time of his life. God delights in our delight.

Yet, the Wild Kingdom-Weather Channel reality that we all know too well is that there are many times we do not take delight in creation and we wonder if there is any wisdom in it at all. Jesus’ followers are a good example: though some were experienced fishers and sailors, the sea was a source of fear and uncertainty for them, somewhat like the chaotic waters of creation. When a sudden storm blows in and threatens to capsize the boat, they understandably panic. Hurriedly, they waken Jesus, who astounds them with his ability to calm both the wind and the waves.

At the Men’s Bible Study a couple of weeks ago, there was a discussion about the bad things that happen to us. Someone may have even quoted Romans 8.28, “All things work together for good.” However, another person said he didn’t see how good things could come out of his son’s death or his recent horrific accident. I responded that I believed that God was present throughout in all of our circumstances of life, good or bad, and that sometimes it’s hard to see what God’s presence brings about. Often, it is not until we have some distance on an event or when others see for us what we cannot see for ourselves that we are able to see God working.

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? I have been hearing a commercial for a mattress company talking about, believe it or not, this very same thing. Knowledge, according to the ad, means knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom means knowing that the tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad. For us today, knowledge means knowing that there is orderliness in creation that is discoverable, and that God delights in us and our delight in it. Wisdom means knowing that God continues to be present in, with, and under all creation, creating and recreating, bringing order out of chaos. This includes our lives, whether sunny skies or cloudy, storms or calm, in creation in all its beauty and its terribleness. Where is God present in your life today, creating and recreating? God delights in doing so. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - "God's Wisdom for Everyday Living: on Trusting God"

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: on Trusting God
Pentecost 10 – Narrative Lectionary 3: Summer
July 28, 2013
Proverbs 3.1-8; Luke 12.29-31

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3.5

When Cindy’s father passed away last month, she did what a number of children do, give a remembrance at his funeral service. I thought it was one of the finest, if not the finest, remembrances I’d heard, and I’ve heard many. She told about the lessons she had learned from her father through her experiences with him. For example, fishing taught her patience, donating blood taught her to give back, bowling taught her to be a part of a team, and so on. Her remembrance was not only a wonderful tribute to her dad, it also exemplifies our Proverbs text for today.

Today we have the second in our six-part Wisdom series, God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living. Last week we discovered that Proverbs is more than just good advice; it’s part of God’s creation, something we’ll explore in greater depth next week. We found that living wisely in fear of the Lord means not only to be in awe of God’s power and obedient to God’s word, is also means to be in right relationship with God. Today’s text casts the conversation about wisdom in terms of a parent’s wise advice to a child. It confirms what we know very well, that parents teaching children is a major building block of society. In less direct way, it also reinforces the fact that parents are the primary faith developers of children.

The main thrust of the passage and the core of parental wisdom and advice are to trust God. When the Bible talks about faith it does so in a wonderfully nuanced and multi-faceted way. There’s certainly head belief, but there is also heart trust and the faithfulness of God that inspires our loyalty and faithfulness. I love the way Eugene Peterson puts this in The Message: “Don’t lose your grip on Love and Loyalty. … Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure everything out on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.”

Do you realize how countercultural this trust of God is in a world that constantly advertises that we “can have it our way,” to “be yourself,” “follow your heart,” “live your dreams,” and “I just gotta be me?” There is nothing wrong with dreams, but I’m concerned that we are cultivating the most narcissistic and self-centered society ever. If we stop and think about it, we realize that our hearts don’t always desire the best things, do they? I love this quote of Mark Twain the exposes our na├»ve self-centeredness: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Jesus understands just how difficult trusting God can be for us, so he orients us properly. It’s important to know that Jesus doesn’t make light about what we need or how much we need to work to get it. Jesus wants us to grow in our understanding that God provides for us on God’s terms, including giving us the skills and abilities to do so. We are to see God working in, with, and through us and our lives. I was reminded of a story from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, in The Chronicles of Narnia, where the girl, Lucy, encounters the Christ figure in the form of a lion Aslan, whom she hasn’t seen for some time. “Aslan, you’ve grown since I’ve seen you last,” she says. “No, my little one,” he says, “it is you who have grown.”

How do we trust God? Thomas Constable reminds us that it is two-step process: the decision of trust and the habit of trust. First, we make a commitment to follow Jesus in the way of the kingdom and then we start acting like it. The second part doesn’t always come right away, but if in the middle of our fears we can muster the courage to commit our way to God’s, we will grow in our trust.

I think this applies not only to us as individuals but also as a community of faith. After worship today we will be voting on whether to further God’s work by calling a staff person who will lead us in helping to grow in faith and discipleship. It’s a scary time for us, but it was also scary making the changes in our education and worship last fall, changes which have borne incredible fruit so far. This is the next step of living into the future God has for us.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart. … Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; [God is] the one who will keep us on track. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"God's Wisdom for Everyday Living: the Fear of the Lord" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: the Fear of the Lord
Pentecost 9 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
Proverbs 1.1-9; Luke 6.47-49
July 21, 2013

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1.7)

I typically disregard the encouragement of “words to live by” through bumper stickers. Once in a while, though, one comes along that grabs my attention, that I say, “That’s pretty good.” Sometimes it’s even pretty good theology. I saw one the other day that I’d seen before: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” That bumper sticker just might sum up a major theme in the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. Did you know that there was such a type of literature in the Bible? Depending on how you categorize the books of the Bible, there are three or four such types: Proverbs, which has an optimistic or positive outlook on wisdom and daily living; and Job and Ecclesiastes, which are more pessimistic or negative in their outlook. As we have seen in our recent study of Psalms, it too, contains elements of wisdom.

Today we begin our six-week sermon series, God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living, during which we’ll explore four passages from Proverbs and two from Ecclesiastes. Today, we begin with Proverbs. The authorship of Proverbs has traditionally been ascribed to King Solomon, but most scholars believe that to be an honorary title given because of his legendary wisdom. The most famous example of his wisdom comes in the story of the women who were arguing over a baby, who Solomon offered to cut in half to satisfy them. However, clearly the book is an edited collection. The collection consists of practical wisdom, much of what could be considered as common sense. However, Proverbs and the other Wisdom Literature claim much more, that these writings show how God and creation work.

The starting point for a life lived wisely rather than foolishly, Proverbs says, is fear of the Lord. When we hear this phrase, we tend to think of God as perpetually angry, needing to be calmed down or appeased. However, although the Bible is clear about God’s power, “fear of the Lord” is meant to reflect that the proper attitude toward God is awe at his power and obedience to God’s sacred word. I am reminded about Mr. Beaver’s response to the children’s question about Aslan in, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “He’s not a tame lion at all.” But it goes even further: fear of the Lord means we are to be in right relationship to God.

True wisdom, therefore, begins with a proper appreciation of the God “who created me and all that exists,” as Luther said in his explanation to the 1st article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism. This, of course, is in response to Luther’s infamous question, “So what does this mean?” Jesus cranks this up in the gospel reading for today, the ending verses of the “Sermon on the Plain,” where he stresses that following him means coming, hearing, and doing his word. Doing so is like building on a solid foundation that would withstand the storms of life. That’s wisdom.

I want to let you in on a little secret: most preachers agonize over the sermons that they preach. We agonize because we want to proclaim the word of God, one that we believe can make a difference in peoples’ lives. However, we also know that insight doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation. We all know people who are very bright or learned but who can’t seem to make their way in life. We only need to read Dear Abby for proof. Recently there was a column that included a letter from a woman in an abusive relationship who knew what she needed to do but couldn’t do it. Wisdom includes doing what we know what we need to do.

Even so, one of the biggest compliments someone can give me is, “You made me think, Pastor.”
A bigger compliment, though, is when someone says, “I think God is calling me to make some changes in my life.” It is easy for a pastor to shake their finger and say, “Don’t do that” or “Do this.” I think a better way, and the way of Proverbs, is to pose some questions about our life in Christ. So, here’s one for today: “Where is it that God is touching your life today, working in your life as you follow Jesus, to be more of the person God has created and intends for you to be?” This is God’s wisdom for everyday living, to be in a good relationship with God and each other. That may not be bumper sticker material, but it’s pretty good. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Psalms for Today: A Call to Praise" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Psalms for Today: A Call to Praise
Pentecost 7 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
Psalm 150
July 7, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

Let everything that breaths praise the Lord! (Psalm 150.6)

This past Wednesday we committed my father-in-law to the earth and God’s care at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. Following the service, as Cindy, her sister, and her mom were catching up with some extended family I got into a conversation with the funeral director, Bob, which began with the weather being nice. He told me he was of Serbian descent and belonged to a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I responded how much I value the Orthodox appreciation of mystery, revealed through icons, those pictures that point us toward a larger reality of God. Bob went on to share his concern about the declining morality of our society.

I told Bob that I was more concerned about rampant narcissism, people focusing on themselves, their own needs and wants to the exclusion of others. We went on reflect on how fewer people were having religious funerals and some no services at all. His own father had just recently passed away and we both shared about our experiences of family members dying. We agreed that death is a passage that we cannot ignore, or if we do so, we become wounded. Perhaps it was because I had Psalm 150 on my mind that I mused out loud that it seemed to me that the great religions are great because they take us outside of ourselves, to focus on the profound things in life.

Today we wrap up our series on the Psalms for Today, stating they are more than old church songs or songs of the old church. At the beginning of the series, in Psalm 1, we learned how the Psalms are a resource for life connecting us to the source of life. Then we heard how Psalm 150 as a song of praise orients us to that source of life, similar to a GPS system. Psalm 13 introduced us to the lament, the cry for help we sing during disorienting times of our lives when they take an unpleasant and unexpected turn. The 23rd Psalm gave us the psalm of trust, a way to express faith in God during those times. Last week through Psalm 30 we received the song of thanksgiving, sung on the backside, reorienting us to the new life God has brought us.

If you look at the psalms in a good study Bible, you will see that they are divided into five sections or “books.” Interestingly, the last line of the last psalm in each one of these sections ends in doxology or praise. Psalm 150, as not only the last psalm in Book Five, but also of the whole Psalter is all doxology or praise. “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah” is proclaimed 13 times in six verses. It’s praise on steroids. This is like the fireworks and cannon at the end of a July 4th pops concert. Do you think this is important? We are called to sing, dance, and play praises to the very one who gives us our very life and breath to do so.

This may be obvious, but it is not trivial. We all probably know some well-meaning Christians whose every other sentence is, “Praise the Lord,” almost like, “Have a nice day” or “No problem.” Yet, we need to ask ourselves, what gets in the way of praising God, of doing sincerely what is breathed into our soul? I have some ideas, and I’ve already suggested some, but I think I’m going to leave it for you to think about that on your own. Meanwhile, I do know that there is nothing in this world—not even death—that prevents us from praising God. Do you remember the story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where the religious leaders order him to tell his disciples to be quiet? Jesus responds, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” All creation praises the Lord.

Praising God is not a silent endeavor. Our hallelujahs are the response of ones who know the power of death, but also know a great God who has conquered death, who holds each of us loving hands. We are not called to praise God to appease God or pay lip service to a petty tyrant. We are called to praise God because God is indeed good and great and loves us steadfastly. God through Jesus Christ has restored us to himself and invites us to share that good news with others. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” Amen.